The Sadhu and The Tree
Dedicated in loving memory to my mother, Dr. Shobha Deven Parikh
In 1982, Bowen McCoy, a managing director of Morgan Stanley, was on a mountain climbing expedition with an anthropologist friend named Stephen. During a “once in a lifetime” trek attempting to summit a portion of the Himalayan mountains McCoy’s climbing team encountered the sick frail body of a barefoot semi-naked Sadhu (“Indian holy man”). The team faced an ethical dilemma: forego the summit in order to take the Sadhu down the mountain for much needed aid, or keep climbing and leave the Sadhu for others to find.
McCoy wanted to summit so badly that he couldn't quit and take the Sadhu down the mountain to safety. But he also didn’t want to leave a man to die. So McCoy and his team gave the Sadhu some clothes and supplies and then left him in hopes that the next climbers would help.
As Bowen and Stephen summited, Stephen asked “How do you feel about contributing to the death of a fellow man?” The two then had an ethical debate about whether they did all they could to help the Sadhu; whether it was the Sadhu’s own fault to be in that position in the first place; whether or not it was ok for anyone to give up a once in a lifetime opportunity like summiting this portion of the Himalayan mountains because the Sadhu had put himself in a dangerous position; whether or not it was ok for each climber to help the Sadhu a little (as Bowen had done by giving the Sadhu some clothes) and then move on – leaving the Sadhu there in hopes the next climber would do more.
McCoy published his account of this moral dilemma in 1983, entitled "The Parable of the Sadhu" for which he won the Harvard Business Review’s Ethics Prize. Since then, this story has been taught in graduate schools and universities around the world.
Bowen posed his dilemma as one of individual ethics vs corporate ethics. I’ve always viewed this story as one of the selfish vs selfless. Bowen had a choice - help his fellow man at the cost of his personal ambition, or fulfill his goal and leave the Sadhu at risk. At what point is it ok to choose yourself over someone else? At what point is it not?
In 1982, the same year Bowen McCoy was trekking up the Himalayan mountains with Stephen, author Wes Henderson wrote “Under Whose Shade.” The story centers on Wesley's family and their journey during the Great Hunger from Ireland to Canada in search of a better life. In the book Nelson Henderson, (Wes’s father) tells his son on graduation day, “The true meaning of life, Wesley, is to plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”
I’m writing this piece in tribute to my mother, but before I get to the serious stuff, I’d like to share a few lighter anecdotes about mom.
Mom had wonderful taste and an artistic eye. She loved fashion and dressed in saris almost every day - she wore them pretty much everywhere, including the airport. One day in the 80s, as mom was waiting to board her flight to India at O’hare an African American man asked if she would take a picture with him because he liked her sari. Mom obliged, but didn’t notice that he was being covered by WGN news till after the picture. Mom had no idea who the gentleman was, however. After they parted ways dad explained to her that the man was incredibly famous. His name was Muhammed Ali.
As you can see, mom wasn’t really concerned with fame or celebrity. She spent most of her life focused on her patients, her family, her faith, and her community. Mom served Chicago as an ER physician for nearly four decades, mainly at Mercy Hospital on the city's south side.
In June of 1994 mom came home one day after an ER shift and told me that she must have had a famous patient come through because all the other staff and even other patients were trying to get into the room to meet him. She kicked them out so she could take care of him. I asked who it was – she had no idea. Later that night, one of the lead stories on the local news was about international superstar Jon Secada (Google him kids – he was once a very big deal) falling off the stage during the Soccer World Cup opening ceremony at Soldier Field after which he was rushed to the ER at Mercy hospital. Guess who his physician was...
Mom was an incredibly innocent honest and humble person. She was childlike in that regard. Growing up she never really had birthday parties like kids do these days, so when she turned the big 6-0 we decided to throw her a 6th birthday party rather than a 60th one. The decorations, cake, plates, napkins, and balloons were all Disney princess themed. I think mom enjoyed it more than a 6 year old would have. That was a good day.
On June 2nd, 2018 we lost our beloved mother, Dr. Shobha Deven Parikh.
Her memorial tribute from the Chicago Tribune can be found here:
As I reflect back on her life and our loss, I have come to realize that mom epitomized the lessons of the Sadhu and the Tree - perhaps better than anyone I know.
Mom had countless opportunities to (metaphorically speaking) climb to the top of many mountains in her life. She could have accomplished far more than she did. She could have had bigger houses and more cars and a much cushier life. She could have made more money, saved more money, retired earlier, travelled more, and done more personally and professionally. But she sacrificed personal ambition and gain over and over again. Instead she helped every “Sadhu” that crossed her path.
For those of you who knew mom and/or read her tribute, you know that she dedicated her life to helping others. As an ER physician in Chicago she treated well over 150,000 patients during her career. She also brought her four brothers and sisters as well as her parents to this great country so they could build lives for themselves and their families. She always welcomed the community into her home and gave help to any and all that needed it. There are many across the USA who found support and meals early in their American Dream journey at our kitchen table.
Mom was a committed servant of God. She hosted hundreds of religious gatherings for the community over the course of her life and was so devout that for nearly three decades, our home was the Srinathji “mandir” (Krishna church) of the Midwest.
In the “Parable of the Sadhu” McCoy chose to leave the Sadhu to fulfill his goal. For mom, the sacrifice of helping the Sadhu always trumped the fulfilment of the individual summit.
In truth, I don’t think I could have lived the life mom lived. I think I am too selfish. She sacrificed for her patients, her family, her community. She sacrificed so much that I don’t know if she ever truly got to live for herself. I wonder if she had done so - what life she would have chosen. Would she have been a physician, or would she have chosen something more creative? After all, she liked to draw, loved cooking as well as fashion, and had a very artistic eye. What I do know is that mom spent her life planting a forest, and I feel incredibly blessed and undeserving to benefit from its shade.
Today is the one month anniversary of her passing and I’m still not quite sure what to think or feel. I’m not even sure her loss has truly hit me yet. There is a certain silence that exists now, though - an absence, where she should be – where her voice and her presence should be.
I will never be able to fully communicate how much mom has meant to her patients, to her family, and to the community at large. I will never get to properly thank her for all the trees she’s planted and all the shade I’ve enjoyed as a result. All I can say is, mom, I miss you, I love you, and thank you. Jai Shree Krishna.